SIKESTON -- Convincing blackbirds there are better places to roost than Sikeston will take the entire community, according to city officials.
An informational "kick-off" meeting for the city's blackbird control measures this year is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Clinton building.
Robert Byrd, wildlife specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the University of Missouri's Delta Center in Portageville, will have a PowerPoint presentation on the part residents play in discouraging blackbird roosts from selecting Sikeston.
By providing this educational opportunity, "the city is helping you help yourselves," said Trey Hardy, Sikeston's community redevelopment coordinator and the city's coordinator for this year's blackbird control program.
The huge flocks are expected to arrive soon as they usually come about a week or two before Thanksgiving, according to Byrd. "Last year, there were probably 6 million in Sikeston," he said.
Byrd has been helping communities in this area deal with blackbird problems for about five years. "I have about 10 counties in Southeast Missouri from Cape to Poplar Bluff and south," he said. "Blackbirds are found in every town in Southeast Missouri."
"This isn't just a local problem, it's a regional problem," noted Linda Lowes, director of governmental services for the city.
Blackbirds are the No. 1 wildlife nuisance for this area, according to Byrd. While he also gets a lot of calls regarding beavers building dams in ditches, blackbirds have the greatest economic impact. "They do more damage," he said.
According to a 2001 survey, over $21 million in damage was caused to rice production by blackbirds nationwide.
Byrd said he and his assistant deal with blackbirds about 10 months out of the year. "It's just one long cycle with me for these birds," he said. "They're eating newly-planted corn and rice in the spring. In August, September, October they're in headed rice fields by the millions."
And in the winter, blackbirds roost in communities.
Cities like Sikeston are attractive to blackbird flocks because there are plenty of trees to roost in and because municipalities are usually warmer overall due to the pavement. "And they're used to coming here," Byrd added.
While populations fluctuate some, Sikeston typically gets the same number of birds coming back year after year.
Surrounding communities have seen increases, however. From 2003 to 2004, the blackbird population rose in Malden from 100,000 to 5 million, according to Byrd.
Huge flocks of blackbirds are more than just an nuisance, according to Byrd: they can be a health hazards as well.
The main concern is diseases such as histoplasmosis, a fungal infection that usually affects the lungs causing a short-term, treatable lung infection. It can also affect other parts of the body in which case it is called disseminated histoplasmosis and can be fatal.
The histoplasmosis fungus lives in soils - particularly soil with lots of bird or bat droppings.
"There are a handful of other diseases, but that is the main one," Byrd said.
As for the bird flu, "it's not an issue at the moment," Byrd said, although it very well could be in the future as the bird flu is now in migratory birds.
The city will again use its four noise cannons to harass the birds as they attempt to settle down for the night, "but they can't cover the whole city," Byrd said. "This is going to be information so you can do it yourself."
The presentation will include several methods of making enough noise to disturb roosting blackbirds. "It can be done fairly easily if you put in the time," he said.
Without participation from a significant number of residents, however, it is likely the birds will just move to another part of town. When a resident participates in harassing birds in their area, "it helps everybody," Hardy said.
Habitat manipulation, which consists of trimming or in some cases even removing trees that blackbirds are particularly fond of, is also an effective way to discourage roosting here.
"There will be other methods discussed at the meeting," Lowes said. "Council has studied the issue. They have been very proactive."
The presentation will also educate community members on what bird species comprise blackbird flocks and why they pick some areas to roost instead of others. "They roost in the same place night after night after night," Byrd said.
The birds follow very specific flight paths, he said, as they leave their resting place and go to feed at daybreak.
"It will be 6 million birds and 30 minutes later they're gone," he said. "In the evening they'll kind of come back in waves but in the morning they'll all leave at once."